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Lawsuit Affirms Right to Film Police in Suffolk County

April 11, 2012 —  The New York Civil Liberties Union, the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP and the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging Suffolk County’s policy and practice of obstructing the First Amendment right of the press and the public to record and gather news about police activity in public places.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York on behalf of professional video journalist Philip Datz, who was unlawfully arrested and detained by Suffolk County police in July 2011 while filming police activity on a public street in Bohemia.

“In our society, people have a clear right to document police activity in public places,” said Amol Sinha, director of the NYCLU’s Suffolk County Chapter. “This right is especially important when it comes to documenting police interactions with community members. We hope this lawsuit strengthens the First Amendment right of journalists to keep the community informed of police activity in public.”

 

Datz, an NPPA member, was standing on a public street with several other bystanders filming the aftermath of a police chase when Suffolk County Sergeant Michael Milton approached him and demanded that he leave the scene. Sergeant Milton later arrested Datz, who had moved a block further away although no police lines had been established. Additionally he had not crossed any police lines, had prominently displayed his press credentials, and had not interfered with the police in any manner. Datz was handcuffed, taken into custody and charged with misdemeanor obstruction of governmental administration. Police also seized his video camera and tape recording of the incident.

“Mr. Datz’s arrest was not an isolated event,” said Robert Balin, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine and lead counsel on the case. “Suffolk County police officers have a pattern of unlawfully interfering with the recording of police activity conducted in plain view. As a journalist, Mr. Datz has a responsibility to cover police activity in public places. The Police Department has a constitutional obligation to respect his First Amendment right to perform this important public service.”

Following his release and the return of his equipment and tape, Datz posted video of the encounter on YouTube. The Suffolk County District Attorney dropped the charge on Aug. 9, 2011.

“The video makes clear that Sergeant Milton acted in an angry and aggressive manner, with disregard for my constitutional rights,” Datz said. “When police arrest journalists just for doing their job, it creates a chilling effect that jeopardizes the public’s ability to stay informed about important news and events in their community.”

The lawsuit maintains that Sergeant Milton’s actions violated Datz’s rights under the First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the New York State Constitution. Sergeant Milton and Suffolk County are named as defendants. It alleges false arrest, assault and battery, violation of civil rights, inadequate training, supervision and discipline of officers who interfere with the constitutional right to record police activity in public, and violation of the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 relating to the seizure of Datz’s camera and tape.

“It is disappointing that the number of these incidents seems to be increasing, necessitating legal action in this case,” said Sean D. Elliot, NPPA President. “I’m also pleased that we are able to step-up and help defend our members when their rights are so egregiously infringed. It is my hope that this case can provide an incentive for more law enforcement agencies to take steps to ensure such incidents do not continue.”

Mr. Datz is seeking an injunction ordering Suffolk County to develop and implement a comprehensive and effective policy to protect the First Amendment rights of the public and press to observe and record police activity in public, including appropriate training and procedures to test the effectiveness of that policy on the ground and to discipline appropriately those who breach it. He is also seeking an award of compensatory damages for the physical, psychological and professional damages that he suffered as a result of his unlawful arrest; an award of punitive damages; and reasonable attorneys’ fees.

 

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